Jayber Crow (Book Review)

jayber-crowI have a friend who loves fiction. The last time in my life that I devoured novels was in fourth grade when my classmates would race to the school library for another Hardy Boys mystery. I’ve read for fun (not counting school assignments) a few more novels and short stories in the 30 years since then, but probably not enough. A while back I started realizing what was missing from my reading diet. Fiction, duh! So I really appreciate my friend who has reminded me of the joy of a good story. As he says, “Fiction teaches people life lessons in a way that nonfiction cannot.” Stories inspire and warn from the angle of examined humanity rather than fact, logic, and reason. I agree. So when I asked him about his favorite book, he didn’t hesitate: Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. Why? Because the main character lives the kind of life we should all attain to. I had never heard of the book. But I was intrigued. So I read it and was impressed by the depth of its spiritual vision.

Published in 2000, I discovered the novel is considered by many a modern classic, perhaps the author’s masterpiece. There are plenty of reviews on the internet to get a synopsis of the plot or a reader’s reasons for liking it. So I won’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say the book is about Heaven. Jayber Crow (JC), the protagonist, says as much near the end. This is the aspect of the book that many reviewers seem to bypass, or at least give less thought to. The book is fiction, but written as if JC sat down and recorded his life and reflections on it in a memoir. JC is an orphan who as a young adult returns to his roots by walking back to Port William, Kentucky – a small town by the River – and serving in various community positions. He is primarily the town barber, but is also the church janitor and gravedigger. From these positions in town, he quietly observes the townsfolk and his unrequited love interest Mattie Chatham. The spiritual element that serves as an indispensable narrative arc exists so JC, who at first thought he would pursue pastoral ministry, gives up this particular call so as to find the answers to his theological questions. His academic and religious adviser can’t give JC the answers he’s looking for because they must be discovered. “How long will that take?” JC asks. The reply: “Your whole life, maybe longer.” Thus begins JC’s journey to discover the meaning of life, and the joys of heaven. The answers, as JC comes to learn, are in the old ways of community, love, and contentment—values that he find in Port William, a kind of heaven on earth, but a heaven that is passing away with the unstoppable encroaching modern world.

Berry is obviously biblically literate. The story is filled with little Bible nuggets in the form of allusions, metaphors, and quotations. Without a knowledge of what these mean in the Bible, I don’t see how readers can fully appreciate the spiritual side of JC, must less understand his transformation into a mature literary character. But more than this, Berry occasionally uses macro imagery from the Bible to serve the narrative. For those familiar with the Bible, this is a powerful device for making the story come alive.

Just before the novel begins, the author includes a notice:

Persons attempting to find a “text” in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a “subtext” in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise “understand” it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers. ~ BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR

Sorry Mr. Berry, I’m a Christian who already sees himself in an exile of sorts. That’s one of the reasons Dangitbill! exists: to give voice to those who look to the kingdom from the wilderness of this world. And so from my “exiled” position I offer these spiritual reflections on Jayber Crow, which I believe are either intended by the author or unintentionally consistent (but sometimes not quite so) with the Bible’s message of life and the afterlife.

Page 43. JC receives his “call” from the Lord to preach. He hears nothing but he responds like the young boy Samuel “Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth” (1 Samuel 3:9-10). Still he heard nothing, but accepted the “call,” assuming it may have come but there was some deficiency in his hearing. I find this quite an observant description of how many people view “call” from God. As a subjective, nebulous feeling. Like being faintly tuned to a radio station that is barely discernible. The allusion is clear, but unlike Samuel’s call, JC’s call is not.

Page 49. JC notices that preachers seem to think the worst sins are of the flesh (body), but to JC the worse seem to be of the soul. How true! This is why Jesus had stronger words for the religious leaders than for the people who were commonly labeled “sinners” for their visible, even notorious sins.

Pages 50-54. The message of the Bible seemed to JC to change and contradict itself as it moved from the OT to the Gospels, and then into the rest of the NT. JC reads the Bible as slanting upward toward Jesus, then slanting downward. His theological questions that (at this point) remain unanswered are in this section of the story. I sympathize with Berry in creating a religious/Bible authority that cannot answer JC’s questions. It gives room for JC to develop and find acceptable answers for himself. But unfortunately, JC’s questions are common—the kind that many thoughtful teenagers and young adults ask—and therefore satisfying answers are easy to find. If I had stopped asking questions of my spiritual counselors and leaders when they didn’t have a good answer, I would have never discovered the answers are out there. In good books, in the wisdom of others, in life, and yes, in the Bible itself.

Page 79. JC’s world (the world as he had experienced it before he was orphaned and how he wants to experience it again) is being recreated out of the flood waters of the swelling River. As he crossed the bridge over the flooding river, crossing from his life away from home (and heading home), he described the feeling of going back to the very beginning of his life in language of Genesis 1:2. “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (KJV). It was his going back to the beginning of the book, and the world as he knew it. He felt “knowledge” crawl over his skin (like the serpent tempting him with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?). The book of Genesis also describes Noah’s flood in language of returning to the beginning. Thus Noah’s flood is a “recreation” of the world, and JC’s world being “recreated” is a reflection of this.

Page 102. JC is about to buy a piece of land (the town barber shop) from one of the town officials (an elder of the city). Jayber kept his money in jacket lining and his shoe. Up to this point, it seems like a silly quirk of JC, but this detail now becomes a rich biblical allusion. To buy the land, Jayber had to retrieve his money from his shoe, thus removing it from his foot. For JC, it was a feeling of vulnerability and nakedness in conducting the transaction. For the seller, he interviewed JC and studied his appearance and character. The sale was a very personal transaction built on trust and covenant promises. JC was promising to be the town barber. The allusion is to the book of Ruth when Boaz purchase the field and thus Ruth as his wife (Ruth 4:1-12). Berry’s interpretation of Ruth is insightful. The ancient Israelite way of conducting business transactions at the city gate with the elders of the city was a communal agreement that established covenantal obligations and benefits. There is certainly a feeling of nakedness and vulnerability in such commitment. I remember similar feelings at every commitment ceremony where I’ve made promises. My wedding, my coming under care of my presbytery, my ordination and installation as pastor at my church. These are covenantal relationships. So is Jayber’s commitment to be the town’s barber. He needs a job (a calling), and the town needs his services.

Page 133. JC had the feeling that his life was led by providence, but only in hindsight could he see where he had been: the Dark Wood of Error, Hell, Purgatory, Heaven, the King’s Highway, headed toward the crossing of the River of Death and into the Celestial City. This imagery is a derived allusion. Derived (mostly) from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory of the Christian life that draws primarily from the Bible for its imagery. Isn’t this the way most of us discern God’s hand guiding our lives? Rarely in the now, but almost always in hindsight. A skeptic might scoff, but life rarely feels like it is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. And for the Bible’s promise of salvation in the new heavens and new earth, all suffering, loss, and evil makes sense from the perspective of eternity. Heaven transforms our foresight into a coherent narrative with a glorious ending, with providence serving as the narrative arc of our individual lives and weaves our stories into the Grand Story. JC has the sense of this.

Pages 142-144. There is an interesting exploration of the justification for war in light of Christ’s teaching to “love your enemies.” JC resolves his mental dilemma by choosing not to become a conscientious objector (like most in the Anabaptist traditions) because he didn’t want to make himself a special case—an exception, because he wanted to identify with “his people” of Port William. Community and belonging helped him resolve the dilemma. This is an unselfish solution, but it doesn’t work in the real world for those whose convictions about war and violence trump their desire to submit to authorities. However, Berry’s solution to participation in war is an interesting psychological insight for those who hate war but are not willing to forsake community for ideology.

Pages 159-165. He’s not just the town barber. JC gives his thoughts on his love of being janitor of the church, and attending church services. (He has opinions on sermons, preachers, prayers, and singing on pages 164-165.) In this section, JC has a vision, alluding to Paul’s vision of being caught up into heaven (2 Corinthians 12:1-4), of all the townspeople (past, present, and future) meeting together at the church building. Here we begin to glimpse the book’s vision of the idea heaven and salvation from an universalist perspective. Saints and sinners alike, those redeemed and unredeemed in life appear in the vision.

Pages 250-254. At this point JC revisits all his questions about God and Scripture, coming to a free-will and universalism conclusions. It all sounds very spiritual, but he is ultimately casting God in his own image. You see, JC is a nice man who would prefer that no one be punished for their sins, either temporally in this world or in eternity. This preference derives from his anthropology, which seems to view every person as inherently good but victims of the sin in the world (sin as out-there but not also in-here). Because JC is so nice and believes that death will be the redemptive agent of change on those who didn’t change/believe in this life, he envisions God in the same way. Isn’t this the essence of man-made views of God? It seems to me that no one would freely invent the God of the Bible—a perfectly holy and just God who has mercy on his elect who don’t deserve it at all. That’s what makes the God of the Bible different—he is not cast in anyone’s image.

Pages 294-296. Here we have JC’s explanation of why Jesus died on the cross, suffering as he did, instead of coming in power and glory at that moment on the cross (or in any other moment since then). He concludes God does so to make room for love between him and people. JC sees that all people are connected to the good and evil in the world, so praying for God to end war and strife through his coming judgment would judge us all. How true! But I observe that if God is just, there must be a judgment day in the end. As JC sees it, either all will be judged (a thought impossible to JC) or all will be saved. There is no understanding how the gospel (some will be saved) is good news and not bad news. JC understands that universalism is the most merciful position. But it does not give God room to reveal his justice to a world full of sin. The gospel brings glory to God, which is the highest good because it displays for all creation the goodness and severity of the most holy and merciful God.

Pages 320-321. JC reveals he is a “literal” reader of the Scriptures. He sees the difficulties. He thinks Jesus came to establish an unorganized religion. JC worships at the church, but he is not argumentative, sectarian, or evangelical. This is a popular view of those who see everything in the Bible as lesser Scripture compared to the four Gospels. But is even based on a selective reading of the Gospels. Before Jesus returned to heaven to rule the heavens and the earth by his Spirit, while he still walked the earth he gave a last command to his disciples, known as the Great Commission, where the institutional church was established as Jesus’ mission for the world. I notice that JC reads the Scriptures “literally” when it suits his desires. To read all the Scriptures literally is to find consistent answers that agree with the orthodox reading of Scriptures.

Throughout the book, it seems to me that Jayber Crow is the Christ figure in the story. He redeems his fallen world through forgiveness of everyone—even his enemies, and through faithfully loving his “wife” Mattie Chatham while suffering unrequited love. He is the Christ figure throughout: orphan, on the edges of the community yet a member and with “his people”. Questioning the religious traditions of men and trying simply to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Serving his “position” in the community by being their gathering place (barber), church janitor, and grave digger. All are vitally necessary positions, yet thankless and without glory and honor. Being the last and least of these—he is the first and outlives them all. Even his initials are “JC”! I don’t think that is a coincidence.

By the end of the book, it is clear that the vision of salvation is universalism. Everyone is redeemed, even JC’s nemesis (the antagonist of the book) Troy Chatham—the unfaithful husband of JC’s love interest Mattie. JC forgives everyone, and everyone will be in Heaven—which will be much like the old Port William of long ago before it started to “die” of the new modern ways and values.

One more thing I noticed about the modern way of the world as it is portrayed throughout the story. The enemies of Port William’s way of life are “The War,” “The Economy,” and “The News.” These enemies are always identified by their capitalization in the text. I don’t think Berry meant it, but these are like the enemies of God’s people in the book of Revelation: The Beast (war), The Prostitute of Mystery Babylon (economy), and the False Prophet (news). These enemies are personified in Revelation, and they are always counterfeits of that which is good. War promises peace but actually destroys it. Economies of debt promise riches but actually enslave. The Media with its News promise information, entertainment, and enlightenment but actually propagandize. These are precisely the destructive elements that Revelation’s personified characters share with War, Economy, and News. And their devastation on old Port William (the personified pure church) is similar.

Such rich biblical symbolism, imagery, and vision makes Jayber Crow a delightful read. You’ll wish you could return to Port William and its many characters again and again, for it awakens desire for Heaven.

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